Friday, February 27, 2015
THE OPEN-ENDED NOVEL: (1) IVAN TURGENEV, "Fathers and Sons"
The first of the great Russian realist writers to achieve popularity abroad was Ivan Turgenev. His
most famous work, "Fathers and Sons," was published in 1862. It is actually Fathers and Children in the original Russian, Отцы и дети,but translators have a point in rendering the title as they have, since the novel treats relationships between fathers and sons, and not between fathers and daughters.
The time of the open-ended novel had not yet quite begun in Russian literature when Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. He concludes the novel with an epilogue, a device that soon was to become old-fashioned.
"This would seem to be the end. But perhaps some of our readers would care to know what each of the characters we have introduced is doing in the present, the actual present. We are ready to satisfy him" (Norton Critical Edition of F and S, Matlaw translation, p. 163).
As we see right at the start, the writer is digging himself into a hole. Especially when he mentions "the actual present," which I'm guessing is about 1862 or 1863 in Turgenev's conception of time, but is certainly much a different thing for the reader, say, of 1940.
After this Turgenev goes on for almost three more pages, telling us what has become of the characters, those still living at the end of Fathers and Sons. The reader may be interested in two or three of the the central characters, but Turgenev tells us about the fortunes of even some whom we care very little about.
Of course, the main character, Bazarov, does not survive to make it into the epilogue, but Turgenev gives him his due by ending the book with a description of his grave.
"There is a small village graveyard in one of the most remote corners of Russia. Like almost all of our graveyards it presents a wretched appearance; the ditches surrounding it are long overgrown; the gray wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting . . . . . the tombstones are all displaced, as if someone were pushing them up from beneath; two or three ragged trees scarcely give scant shade; the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs. . .
"But among them is one untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs around it; two young fir-trees have been planted, one at each end. Evgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb.
"Often from the little village not far off, two quite feeble old people come to visit it--a husband and wife. Supporting one another, they move to the tomb with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and intently they gaze at the mute stone, under which their son is lying. They exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir tree, and pray again, and they cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son, to their memories of him.
"Can it be that their tears and their prayers are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace peace alone, of that great peace of 'indifferent' nature. They tell us, as well, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end" (165-66).
The book could well end with the last paragraph omitted. Without that paragraph Turgenev might have himself a better ending, but he would lose the rhetorical flourish, the sort of thing that Hollywood does so well-- when the music rises and the camera draws back at the end, and the little hairs on the neck of the viewer stand tall, and tears well up in the eyes.
After all, I don't think it would be too cynical of me to suggest that, to look life squarely in the eye, the single quotes on the word 'indifferent' above don't really belong there. Nor can you read the way flowers look at you and conclude with a message of eternal reconciliation and life without end.
But we do like endings like this, don't we? Could be we even need endings like this.